Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Personal Guidlines For Testing New 3D Printers

I love testing new products and have had that opportunity many, many times.  It's been a pretty interesting journey.

Along the way, I've come up with some guidelines for myself designed to help avoid running down rabbit trails or blaming the new product for outcomes for which they are not responsible.  I thought it might be helpful to point out some of these guidelines.  This list isn't complete; but, it's a pretty good starting place.
  • Set realistic expectations
  • Avoid using old filament
  • Avoid using 3rd party filament
  • Take the time to calibrate
  • Use simple forms for first tests
  • Document with video
  • Be as clear as possible when reporting observations
  • Useful tools for analysis
So, let's take them individually.

Set realistic expectations

M3D has been crystal clear that users should opt out of early delivery if they are unable or unwilling to deal with early production issues.  3D printers are very complex products that require the tight integration of software and hardware.   Early adopters can, and should, expect some fits and starts in pursuit of perfection.   Some anomalies will only show up in the field.  And, when they do the reason is NOT that "the printer is garbage"; but. simply that an unknown issue has surfaced as new users push the limits.  Patience is our friend.

Avoid using old filament

To me, filament is one of the weak points of any 3D printing experience.  Old filament, in particular, can be so internally damaged simply through absorbing moisture from the environment that it can make even the finest 3D printers look like utter dogs.  This is one reason why I urge people to by filament in smaller reels rather than huge reels.  And, I keep filament in closed containers with desicant while being stored.  But, even with that protection I would ALWAYS exclusively use brand new filament while evaluating a new 3D printer.

Avoid using 3rd party filament

Not all filament is produced using the same standards of uniformity.  While i know the M3D Pro is built to be able to use any high quality filament, for initial testing purposes I want to remove as many loose variables as possible.  This means using a filament that is absolutely certified for use in the printer.  And, for me, that means using M3D filament for my initial testing.  This then can be the baseline as the tests branch out to include 3rd party filaments.

Take the time to calibrate

We drum into our cadets that to successfully use our tools we have to KNOW our tools.  Every single time we open a new M3D Micro printer we go through the same complete calibration drill of leveling, gapping and setting the backlash.  Only after these operations are complete can we give the printer a fair shot at evaluating it's performance.  Yanking it out of the box and immediately expecting a perfect print simply isn't fair to the printer and distorts our evaluation.

Use simple forms for first tests

Having designed and printed thousands of objects over the past half decade, I have plenty of challenging prints to throw at the M3D Pro when it arrives.  But, none of them would tell me as much as a simple thin wall 20mmx20mm box with a pointed roof or a modest 3D object that combines some common 3D primatives like spheres, cones, rectangles and holes.  These objects are small enough to be printed very quickly.  And, they are also small enough to be readily examined under a stereo microscope where Z-Axis wobble and other common issues can be easily identified and described.   Print quickly and analyze slowly.  :)

Document with video

I'm a little biased here because I was a video producer for more than a decade after graduating from college.  These days we have a variety of video tools that can help us in our quest to analyze issues with products and materials.  My own arsenal includes everything from a dedicated 3-chip video camera to a simple little $10 snake camera that can be mounted right on the chassis of the printer.  Phones and GoPro cameras are also great tools to help us communicate what we see.

Be as clear as possible when reporting observations

When we do fine issues, it's very important to try to be as clear and complete as possible when reporting our finds.  "It clogs" might be accurate; but, it's hardly helpful to support personnel trying to replicate the issue and find a solution.  Great information would include the type of filament used, the age of the filament, make of the filament, when in the printing process the clogging showed itself and if you were able to easily clear the clog immediately.  The gap settings would also be helpful and whether other objects worked with those same gap settings.

Useful tools for analysis

Those of you that have read my earlier blogs know that I absolutely love an inexpensive child's stereo microscope called the C&A Scientific My First Lab World of Wonder Scope.   There are actually several versions of the C&A Scientific children's scopes and all of them are invaluable at well under $100!   This particular model includes 50x optics as well as 20x glass optics.

Other tools that are really helpful are a digital depth guage and a set of digital calipers.  Both can be purchased at relatively low cost on Amazon and Harbor Freight has a variety of different digital calipers from which to chose.  These very helpful in measuring the actual results relative to the design software specs.  For instance, in most 3D printers holes are typically smaller than designed and posts are typically larger than designed.  The question is just how much any given printer will vary so that we can make allowances for that.

Testing and evaluating a new 3D printer can be a lot of fun if we approach it as a journey with plently of opportunities for discovery.  I'm looking forward to my M3D Pro journey.  :)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Exciting days Ahead! Waiting for M3D Pro.

I have been very quiet on this blog as M3D was hard at work getting the M3D Pro ready for prime time.

Frankly, having lived through some disastrous premature releases of other 3D printing products from other companies, I have been more than happy to wait for my first M3D Pro until the M3D team felt it was ready for release.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I do not expect an absolutely perfect 3D printer in the first run.  Years and years of experience has taught me that a design team simply cannot completely debug software and hardware because they innately know what NOT to do.  It isn't until a product gets into to the hands of users that things are attempted that are completely out of bounds of 'expected' use.

I am more than happy to be an early adopter of the M3D Pro.  The features that it ultimately promises to deliver are so far above those of any of the many other 3D printers I own, or use, that they more than offset whatever issues that might surface in the early days.

We love the M3D Micro.  It has a special place in our work with teachers and at-risk kids.  But, it's not a high production printer suitable for heavy classroom use.

The JellyBox Kit printer IS a high speed printer that produces beautiful prints.  It, too, has a unique place in our work with at-risk young people.  We love it.  But, it cannot match the M3D Pro as the perfect, compact 3D printer for the classroom for everyday work.  Those of you that have owned a RepRap style kit printer will understand the subtle difference.

We need a printer than can be stored under lock & key, transported easily to the classroom for class and that can be counted on to work reliably after every move.  Most importantly, however, we need a 3D printer that requires as little fuss as possible.  Our teachers and students want to print, not fiddle with a printer.

And, unless I am completely wrong, the M3D Pro is going to be the perfect printer for those challenging requirements.

We'll soon find out and I am REALLY excited about that!   

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

M3D is Doing it Right!

You haven't heard from me for quite a while.

There is a reason for that.

I have been waiting while carefully following the progress of the M3D Pro.

You see, I am a bit gun shy when it comes to the way companies roll out new 3D printers.  And, since my reputation and good will are going to be heavily invested in helping M3D printer owners, I needed to be ABSOLUTELY sure that I was following the right horse.  And, while I love the M3D Micro for what it is meant to be, the M3D Pro is a horse of an entirely different color.

I don't know if the term "Alpha" means much to you; but, as a software developer with more than 37 years of professional experience it means a LOT to me.

I know just how important it is for software (and hardware that relies on software) developers to release their products to a small group of users prior to final release of a product.  I could never get the manufacturer of the 3D printer of my previous blogs to understand that.  Thus, ALL users became Alpha and Beta testers... with frustrating and disastrous results.

But, M3D is different.  Not only have they not allowed themselves to be pushed into a premature release of the M3D Pro; but, their first tier of users will be using Alpha printers.  And, these users have been told so in M3D's latest Kickstarter update.  It is extremely important to note that M3D's latest update quite carefully explains what receiving an Alpha printer may mean to the first round of users and provides a way to opt out if users are not ready to work through some unexpected glitches here or there that an Alpha user sometimes confronts.

You have NO idea how happy this makes me.  It confirms my feelings about M3D management's commitment to ALL of their M3D Pro users.

This candor has benefits to two different groups of users.  Those who relish the idea of being an early user will be able to dive right in to experimenting and putting the M3D Pro through some hard testing.  We like the idea of helping to improve the user experience for all users.  But, there are others who don't want the potential frustration of working with a printer that has not been fully tested in the field.  And, M3D has given them that option.

I'm really looking forward to the M3D Pro arriving on my doorstep.  I know that their design engineers have done their best to move 3D printing in  major step forward.  From M3D updates, I know the production line engineers are working hard to make sure the line moves smoothly once full production has begun.  But, most of all, I know that those in charge of this company have proven their commitment to quality in how they have run this new roll-out and communicated with so much candor.

Now, I'm ready to move to the next level of M3D fun!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Forware to a Great M3D Pro Year!

2016 was a productive 3D year.  But, with the promise of the M3D Pro, this year promises to be even more productive.

But, that doesn't mean that I want the M3D Pro to be released until the developers are absolutely sure that it is ready for prime time.

That is because I lived through the premature release of the 3rd Gen Cube 3D printer.  The early days of its release forever ingrained in me that patience is a virtue when it comes to waiting for a product to be released.  The problems of early 3rd Gen Cube machines doomed the line and wasted a lot of time and energy on the part of users.  By the time they finally did get it right, it was too late.  And, frankly it was quite a nice 3D printer when all the kinks were ironed out.  Between my own and those in the 3D ThinkLink Lab, I am using 6 of them in active service

But, I do not have any doubt at all that the M3D team will not make the mistakes that dogged the Cube team.  They are too meticulous for that to happen.  And, from top to bottom they are user experienced focused.  They know that it is the user's daily experience that spells the success or failure of a 3d printing product.

Notice that I did not simply say that the M3D team was "User Focused".  I very specifically said they were "User Experience Focused".  There is a difference.

Every conversation I have with them and every communication I've read concerning the progress of the M3D Pro, tells me they understand that we, the users, want as close to a trouble-free working relationship with our 3D printer as humanly possible.  We simply want to print... not fool around with a printer.

Now, I'm not so naive as to think there will never be a need for user intervention with the M3D Pro.  After all, it IS a mechanical device.  But, the more meticulous the designers are in meeting their published goals, the less you and I will have to fiddle to finish a print.  And, that will be a first for me with any of the 3D printers i have owned or used... right on up to the professional full-color powder based printer we have in the lab.


M3D will be at CES.  And, I am told to pay close attention to the news from Las Vegas.  I have no idea what it will be.  But, at the very least, we should see some major online media outlets provide some more insight into and information about the M3D Pro.  So, I'm going to keep my attenna up for any scrap of news that I can come by.

You can bet somebody will be grabbing the print head mid-build to see how well it recovers!

But, as impressive as that capability is, the real meat and potatoes I'm looking for is completely automatic leveling and gapping.  That means rock-solid reliability and I can't wait for that to be my experience with a 3D printer.

I have all the confidence in the world that the M3D team is going to deliver that in 2017.  And that is very exciting for me.